Biography of Hubert Humphrey, the Happy Warrior

Hubert Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey, who served as vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, is pictured here at the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York.

 George Rose/Getty Images

Hubert Humphrey (born Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr.; May 27, 1911–January 13, 1978) was a Democratic politician from Minnesota and the Vice President under Lyndon B. Johnson. His relentless push for civil rights and social justice made him one of the most prominent and effective leaders in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. However, his shifting position on the Vietnam War as Vice President changed his political fortunes, and his support for the war ultimately played a role in his loss of the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon.

Fast Facts: Hubert Humphrey

  • Known For: Vice President to President Lyndon B. Johnson, five-term senator, and a Democratic candidate in the 1968 presidential election
  • Born: May 27, 1911 in Wallace, South Dakota
  • Died: Jan. 13, 1978 in Waverly, Minnesota
  • Education: Capitol College of Pharmacy (pharmacist's license); University of Minnesota (B.A., political science); Louisiana State University (M.A., political science)
  • Key Accomplishments: His role in the passage of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Spouse: Muriel Fay Buck Humphrey
  • Children: Hubert H. III, Douglas, Robert, Nancy

Early Years

Born in 1911 in Wallace, South Dakota, Humphrey grew up during the Midwest's great agricultural depression of the 1920s and 1930s. According to Humphrey's Senate biography, the Humphrey family lost its home and business in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Humphrey briefly studied at the University of Minnesota, but soon moved to the Capitol College of Pharmacy to receive his pharmacist's license in order to help his father, who ran a drugstore.

After a few years as a pharmacist, Humphrey returned to the University of Minnesota to earn his bachelor's degree in political science, then went on to Louisiana State University for his master's. What he saw there inspired his first run for elected office.

From Mayor to the U.S. Senate

Humphrey took up the cause of civil rights after witnessing what he described as the “deplorable daily indignities” suffered by African Americans in the South. After graduating with his master's degree in Louisiana, Humphrey returned to Minneapolis and ran for mayor, winning on his second try. Among his most notable accomplishments after taking office in 1945 was the creation of the nation's first human relations panel, called the Municipal Fair Employment Practices Commission, to crack down on discrimination in hiring.

Humphrey served one four-year term as mayor and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. It was that year, too, that he pushed delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to adopt a strong platform plank on civil rights, a move that alienated Southern Democrats and cast doubt on Harry Truman's chances of winning the presidency. Humphrey's brief speech on the floor of the convention, which led to the overwhelming passage of the plank, set the party on a path to establish civil rights laws nearly two decades later:

"To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

The party's platform on civil rights was as follows:

“We call upon Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental rights: 1) the right of full and equal political participation; 2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; 3) the right of security of person; and 4) the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.”

From U.S. Senate to Loyal Vice President

Humphrey forged an unlikely bond in the U.S. Senate with Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1964 accepted a role as his running mate in the presidential election. In doing so, Humphrey also vowed his "unswerving loyalty" to Johnson on all issues, from civil rights to the Vietnam War.

Humphrey relinquished many of his most deeply held convictions, becoming what many critics called Johnson's puppet. For example, at Johnson's request, Humphrey asked civil rights activists to back down at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. And despite his deep reservations about the Vietnam War, Humphrey became Johnson's "chief spear carrier" for the conflict, a move that alienated liberal supporters and activists who protested U.S. involvement.

1968 Presidential Campaign

Humphrey became the Democratic Party's accidental presidential nominee in 1968 when Johnson announced he would not seek re-election and another presumptive front-runner for the nomination, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated after winning the California primary in June of that year. Humphrey defeated two war opponents—U.S. Senators Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and George McGovern of South Dakota—at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year and chose U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his running-mate.

Humphrey's campaign against Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon was underfunded and disorganized, however, because of the candidate's late start. (Most White House aspirants begin building an organization at least two years before Election Day.) Humphrey's campaign really suffered, though, because of his support for the Vietnam War when Americans, particularly liberal voters, were growing skeptical of the conflict. The Democratic nominee reversed course before election day, calling a halt to bombing in September of the election year after facing accusations of "baby-killer" on the campaign trail. Nonetheless, voters viewed a Humphrey presidency as a continuation of the war, and chose instead Nixon's promise of an “an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” Nixon won the presidential election with 301 of the 538 electoral votes.

Humphrey had run unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination twice before, once in 1952 and once in 1960. In 1952, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson won the nomination. Eight years later, U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy won the nomination. Humphrey also sought the nomination in 1972, but the party chose McGovern.

Later Life

After losing the presidential election, Humphrey returned to private life teaching political science at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, though his academic career was short-lived. “The pull of Washington, the need I suppose, to resurrect my career and previous reputation were too great,” he said. Humphrey won re-election to the U.S. Senate in the 1970 elections. He served until his death from cancer in January 13, 1978.

When Humphrey died, his wife, Muriel Fay Buck Humphrey, filled his seat in the Senate, becoming only the 12th woman to serve in the upper chamber of Congress.

Legacy

Humphrey's legacy is a complicated one. He is credited with setting members of Democratic Party on a path to passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 by championing the causes of social justice for minorities in speeches and rallies over the span of nearly two decades. Humphrey's colleagues nicknamed him the "happy warrior" because of his indefatigable optimism and spirited defense of the weakest members of society. However, he is also known for acquiescing to Johnson's will during the 1964 election, essentially compromising his own long-held convictions.

Notable Quotes

  • "We have made progress. We've made great progress in every part of this country. We’ve made great progress in the South; we’ve made it in the West, in the North, and in the East. But we must now focus the direction of that progress towards the realization of a full program of civil rights to all."
  • “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.” 
  • “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

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